There will be no more kicks on “route 66”, at least if Micheál Martin has his way on pensions. “This idea of retiring at 66 will have to go,” says the Taoiseach.
Such a thought is a dream for those eyeing up another decade in a job they love or a business they run. However, it’s a nightmare if they’re already creaking; arms, neck, knees or hips shot after 40 years of building, slabbing, hauling, cleaning, cutting. Jobbing writers, too, can fall into the work-crocked category.
The senior politicians removing the kicks from route 66 may retire themselves, not to early pension penury but some well-paid corporate boardroom, consultancy or outpost of the UN or EU. None of them will be running for work in their late 60s or 70s – stupefied by muscle relaxants, stomach-stripped by anti-inflammatories – simply to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
Naturally, some employees are delighted at the prospect of working well into their 70s, even 80s. Forced retirement at 65 was a humane killer for too many. Bad golf and good sheds saved dignity, sanity, futures and even marriages. But while “we’re all living longer, so we must work longer” sounds breezy and inclusive, the practice is more complicated.
First, and newly, there’s long-Covid with its emerging impact on health and the future capacity of the workforce. Singer Shawn Mendes has just cancelled a world tour due to Covid fall-out.
Second, there’s the ablism already instituted in our culture, seen in an increasingly fragile Joe Biden “working through” Covid while GPs are advising infected 20-year-olds to rest.
Third, there’s the ageism already wreaking havoc on careers and earnings. Women hitting peak earnings in their early 40s, compared with men in their late 50s, face added sexism as they age. Whether women are changing jobs or re-entering the workforce, managers cry “overqualified” as a subtext for, well, old.
I’d wonder about the competence and confidence of any manager looking in the mouth the gift horse of stellar expertise for a lower-than-previously-commanded salary, particularly when some workers in their 50s are actively looking to downshift as personal circumstances change, often for greater flexibility to study, retrain in another discipline or mind parents or grandchildren.
But for every downshifter there are more – many more – who want to advance according to their expertise, talent, achievement.
They are now on the slippery slope of accepting ever-lower grade-and-paid jobs as ‘reward’ for living longer, simply so they will be able to survive financially. In Ireland, given more workers are renting, not buying, we must ask where that surviving will be done.
Don’t get me wrong: change is a constant in life. Of good friends, only three still work in the field in which they trained initially: teaching and medicine. The others have had various incarnations and, like myself, are still not done.
But with years come limits. Within those limits, what hope do many have for well-paid, satisfying work in their 60s or 70s when being over 50 is over the hill?
Will the Trussed-up neo-liberals, the self-declared eco-capitalists – who wouldn’t know eco if his name was Umberto – line them out for a pension-and-retirement Hunger Games in which they prove their capacity and worthiness for security versus precarity?
Grannies with master’s degrees, decades of high-level working consigned to going bob-a-jobbing around neighbours’ gardens, ask their grandchildren’s friends “Would you like fries with that?” while others – usually men – stretch languidly into secure retirement in their holiday-homes in Croatia, Courtmacsherry or Connemara.
I’m especially concerned for women of my own generation – 50s – who were told they could have it all, not realising it could mean all the earning, all the mortgaging, all the educating, all the constant exhausting work.
The ones who find they are rowing alone, and for their lives, in the treacherous straits of no-private-pension precarity, or caring or divorce. Meanwhile, the politicians with their pension pronouncements sail past them secure, smug, smiling, en route to constituency consultations.
Too much of what passes for political thinking is really more Frank O’Connor’s lads throwing their caps over the orchard wall and following them.
The actual thinking is done by the likes of trade unionist Mick Lynch, the RMT et al, who recognise that nobody is born or dies a worker. They recognise that working is an activity we undertake to make what should be a decent living, not mega-profits for the few, or a classification of our lives.
The climate emergency – where we must produce and use less energy, make and buy less stuff – is leaving the ‘busy’ neo-liberals emasculated, discombobulated.
In the pensions-and-retirement conundrum, worker “capital” is a bit like eco-capitalism: oxymoronic. Denying workers decent jobs and dignity as they age, timely and well-funded protection and retirement thereafter? Moronic.